The Pirate Ship Quintet – Rope for No-Hopers – 85%

The Pirate Ship Quintet (ep) cover art
The Pirate Ship Quintet set sail from the UK many moons with ago with a crew of simply 5. In place of classic “yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” pirate songs they bring to the table heavy and dense post-rock featuring non-traditional instruments (trumpet and cello). A follow-up to their 2007 self titled EP, “Rope for No-Hopers” was unearthed in a treasure chest on April and unleashed to the world.

The five track album begins with some clever mixing as guitar work alternates between the left and right channel while the somber strings of a cello fills the rest of the space. The drums are extremely tight and compact sounding and the cymbals seem to be mixed at a much quieter level allowing the guitars to really shine through in the spotlight. The softer valleys in their music really are something to behold as the inclusion of a cello player sets them a part from the rest of the field. In the midst of the build ups near the end of “You’re Next” static crescendo guitar work looms in the background while the cello maintains center stage. The entire track feels as one big tease in that the expectation that a full-scale breakdown is approaching is always prevalent but it never truly comes to form.

“Horse Manifesto” ditches the cello in favor of a sharply aggressive static laden guitar that tears through the track. The song turns even darker when screams fill the background behind the guitar. The pacing quickens as the cello whines in the distance as if to say a storm is coming. The guitar flutters in and out in an panic-esque echoing. As the final minute of the song approaches the layers come together in a powerful finish. The following track, “Dennis Many Times” continues the albums bleak outlook with continued screamo style growls that are emotionally agonizing. The pacing is almost at a crawl until about halfway through the track when guitars explode into the song without warning as the screams intensify. Before your ears can adjust, it’s all gone as the song returns to its slow pacing. This track is 10 minutes of peaks and valleys, highs and lows with slow pace giving way to the unexpected and cello work leading into guitar feedback. One of the truly unique tracks of the year.

“Rope for No-Hopers” is all over the place in terms of raw aggression mixed with bleak beauty but maintains a somber feel of hopelessness. The constantly changing pace kept me on edge throughout the second half of the album as the albums ability to shift gears on a moments notice is certainly a breath of fresh air to post-rock song writing. Occasionally I found the riffs to be lacking substance, particularly the ones that find themselves stuck in the middle ground between the build ups and the full-scale breakdowns. Also, while the vocals fit the album well, the words (if there are any) are completely indistinguishable. I give the band much respect for the albums unique sound and their approach to the post-rock genre. Diversity is key in this genre and The Pirate Ship Quintet are clearly in a class of their own. 7-20-12

Available for about $8 on Bandcamp: http://thepirateshipquintet.bandcamp.com/

Joy Wants Eternity – The Fog is Rising – 84%

The Fog is Rising cover art
Representing my home town of Seattle, Joy Wants Eternity have been around nearly 10 years. “The Fog is Rising” is their follow-up to “You Who Pretend to Sleep,” an absolutely mind bending album released back in 2007. A lot tends to happen in a five-year span and the post-rock scene has evolved quite a bit since then so let’s get into the review and see if this album is worth the wait.

The album begins with no frills as “Our Backs into the Wind” starts heavy from the opening second with systematic drumming and climatic cymbal crashes before settling down in a flurry of ambient beauty. Despite the heavy opening the finish is quite the polar opposite as a beautiful piano segment plays us out. The title track follows and is a beauty of a track that has it all. Deep ambiance and well textured crescendo guitar work their way in and out of the mix combing to create bliss for the ears.

The sound stage is too far small and compact meaning certain instruments tend to disappear as tracks become too dense. The album as a whole has a much darker tone to it production wise. While beautiful, I can’t help but feel that the equalization process in the mastering could have been better. For example in the first half of “Dark Heart of the King” the spiraling crescendo guitar hides behind the predominant drumming. That’s not a knock against the band per say, I suppose that it’s just uncommon to see a more ambient release with technical qualities better suited for a heavier release.

Technical mumbo jumbo aside, there is something to be said about the work of a band who has been around the scene for a while. The synergy  both between the instruments themselves and the album tracks is incredible. The album is extremely refined and the band never tries to do too much  with their build ups or break downs, a common mistake found amongst younger post-rock bands. The album wraps up with “In Camera,” a sentimental keyboard track that provides a perfect ending to one of the more mellow post-rock releases of the year. It’s great to see a band put as much emphasis into their keys as they do with their guitars. “The Fog is Rising” is as solid as it is beautiful and it is well worth your time to check it out. 7-20-12

Available for $5.94 at http://joywantseternity.bandcamp.com/

Astralia – Astralia – 95%

Astralia cover art

Astralia are a 4-piece from Spain who have a very small web presence. After some quick research, they have no website, a bandcamp containing just the album and very little info, a Facebook page you must add as a friend to see, a MySpace (do people still use that?) and a SoundCloud page. The important thing here is that I have their album, meaning while the rest of the band will stay a mystery, we can still get to the bottom of their latest offering.

The album opens with “Northern Horizons,” an atmospheric track that begins with well textured ambient guitar work and wide-open drums before crescendo guitar sneaks into the mix helping the song quickly develop from a gentle trotting show horse to a full gallop purebred stallion. Guitar tones are wonderful, sound stage is very large and the sound is full. “Glacial” brings a much tighter sound to the table as precious drumming takes focal point while deeply textured guitars wail in the background. There is an enormous amount of craftsmanship and tight control to be found here. Each instrument seems to have its place and each guitar tone and effect has been chosen for exactly the right reason. This track finishes far stronger than it opens and is effective in keeping me waiting to hear what’s next and wanting more.

The title track “Astralia” follows and sounds as though it was recorded in empty abandoned building given the echo-ish vibes. Each instrument is vibrant and is well spaced in the mix. Each riff, cymbal crash and bass line can easily be distinguished. They compliment each other brilliantly and synergize like very few bands are capable of producing. The bass is especially impressive and is consistently present within all the tracks. The album naturally transitions into “Midnight Sun,” the longest track on the album. An eerie build up tempts the ears as chords slowly develop over a lasting hum. The song finally takes form in the shape of a track that would put This Will Destroy You to shame. You heard me right. I would be willing to put this track up against song on TWDY’s “Tunnel Blanket” because that’s how good it is. This album is a work of true beauty and music art. My biggest regret is not picking up on this band sooner. This album would have sat on my digital shelf much longer had it not been for a suggestion from my buddy @Will_Hough suggesting I check it out sooner rather than later.

The album wraps up with “Mistral Roars” which is a heavy ballad of textured tones, drum rolls and bleak ambiance. Astralia took me by shock and overpowered me with its rawness and well crafted sound. Although only 33 minutes long, quality absolutely trumps quantity here. Each of the five tracks are unique, full of life and can’t be overlooked. You would simply be insane to hit the skip button on this album. This is a must listen to album of 2012. 7-19-12.

Free at http://astralia.bandcamp.com/

Turbonegro – Sexual Harassment – 78%

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Not Post-rock. I’ve been a fan of Turbonegro for a little while now and was surprised to see this release come out given that they hadn’t done anything in 5 years album wise. Before going any further, I’m going to point out that this band is NOT racist. The band name stands for “Fast and Black” which is a great way to describe their music, as it tends to be a bit dark, especially the earlier stuff. I’m a big fan of pretty much everything they released from the 10 year span of 1996 – 2006 when they really peaked. A hard rock band from Oslo, Norway, Turbonegro apparently recently parted ways with their longtime vocalist Hank who at times let the band suffer with his rampant drug use and partying lifestyle. Losing a vocalist is tough for any band, but Hank’s vocals were an integral part of Turbonegro’s sound. The new singer just doesn’t cut it for me.

Aside from the dramatic change at the front of the band, this is still much the same band I’ve come to love. You can’t take them seriously at all with song titles such as “Shake Your Shit Machine”. The guitar work is still a great combination of decent solos and fast punk-inspired power chords. If you mixed the best punk bands of the late 70’s – early 80’s i.e. Black Flag, The Ramones, The Stooges and combine them with 80’s hair and heavy metal bands that never took themselves you’d have the essence of Turbonegro.

Turbonegro is a niche band that isn’t for everyone. If you enjoy the lighter side of rock & roll and want something fresh to smirk at or occasionally make your friends laugh, you’ll love Turbonegro. If you’re looking for groundbreaking or technically sound, this album will do nothing for you. It’s not perfect and it wasn’t made to be. Grading an album like this is tricky because while it’s a solid album by Turbonegro standards, but being that it’s just over a half hour long and having to compare it with other bands, the best I can do is 78%. 7-19-12
Band website: http://www.turbonegro.com

X Suns – X Suns – 85%

X Suns cover art
X (Ten) Suns is an unsigned band hailing from my hometown of Seattle, Washington. I’m actually kind of surprised I haven’t managed to catch a show of theirs yet but that should change given how much I really enjoyed this album. The band has received solid praise from local publications since releasing the album so I’m actually surprised that I had to discover them through another band’s suggestion page on bandcamp.

The album kicks off with “In Irons”, a very chill and relaxing track that really sets the table for what you can expect from the rest of the album. The mix is absolutely phenomenal. The upfront drums sound amazing and you can hear every single beat and cymbal crash. I really respect that the cymbals aren’t overpowering just for the sake of driving up the intensity of the tracks, a regular occurrence that so many post-rock bands find themselves guilty of. The guitar is moody and brooding, producing huge sounding and well textured riffs that would best be described as post-rock inspired riffs mixed with stoner/doom influenced tones.

I think the most interesting track is by far “Lion Cave” which has a strong math rock pacing and feel but still retains much of X Suns sound. The drumming is super solid and on-point and guitar just kind of floats throughout the track brilliantly. The album is rounded out by a couple of live tracks that sound like they were taken directly from a soundboard. I’m always iffy on when bands include live tracks on their album but these two tracks fit well here and being an independent release, their inclusion is understandable. This album is well worth checking out. X Suns are a fine band to be representing Seattle in the post-rock genre!

Pay what you want on bandcamp: http://xsuns.bandcamp.com/album/x-suns

Lights Out Asia – Hy-Brasil – 83%

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“Hy-Brasil” is the latest effort from Milwaukee post-rockers Lights Out Asia. The three-piece has put out some very solid releases that teeter on the more electronic side of the genre. Topping out at over 70 minutes, Hy-Brasil is 12 more tracks of electronic beat filled epic build ups and ambiance. One thing that really sets this band apart from other bands who come from the electronic side of post-rock is that Lights Out Asia’s vocals tend to be used as just another layer to their sound and are often times lost amongst the walls of sound.

The intensity of this album hits hard and by surprise in the opening track “The Eye of All Storms.” LOA does a really great job of transitioning their slower sensual side with their more intense passages. Generally, whenever the electronic beats/drums kicks in is when you can expect things to get heavy quickly. At times I can definitely hear the down tempo influence but my mind refuses to let me think that this band is anything but down tempo given the sheer intensity and loudness of this album. Some of the heavier tracks, like “Angels Without Hands” even manage to cross into post-metal territory in terms of raw intensity. The guitar is glorious and the tones are just beautiful when it’s not being pushed down so far into the mix that it becomes overshadowed by everything else that is going on. The bass could be thicker in places to better fill the low areas of the mix as well but that’s just a personal preference more than a complaint.

The tracks have pretty good synergy with one another and the ambient factor is really off the charts. I feel like the album is a little *too* ambient. The high notes are definitely ratcheted up to the point where the pitch occasionally hurt my ears. I found myself turning down my amplifier twice throughout my first play through of the album which is a first for any album I’ve reviewed. There wasn’t really an album defining track or a particular track that stood out to me either. LOA have created a very consistent album here that should please both post-rock and electronic fans alike. Another solid addition to the Lights Out Asia catalog. 7-16-12

Available for $9 at http://n5md.com/discography/200/Hy-Brasil

Agalloch – Faustian Echoes – 83%

Faustian Echoes cover art

There are few bands that are able to pull off songs that eclipse the 20 minute mark without losing my interest. My first forray into 20 minute epics was Rush’s “2112”. Then it was Dream Theater’s “A Change of Seasons”. Of course Opeth had their “Black Rose Immortal” and Pelican wowed us with “March into the Sea”. There is no shortage of Godspeed You! Black Emperor epics either and most recently I reviewed the 56 minute epic “Explore” from Hands of the Templar. The art of making a song that long that can hold the listeners interest for 1/3rd of an hour is an endearing task of attrition and I can safely say that “Faustian Echoes” deserves a spot among all the aforementioned bands.

Faustian Echoes is a showcase of strong black metal mixed with that classic refined Agalloch sound. I believe that the song is based off the play Doctor Faustus that originated in either the 1600 or 1700’s. It features excerpts and samples from the play, most likely the 1967 film adaptation. Much of the song is very much in line with the heavier side of Marrow of the Spirit while still retaining the high caliber guitar work we’ve known to love and appreciate from the masterminds of John Haughm and Don Anderson. As a whole the track feels less polished than some of the work you’d find on say Ashes Against the Grain or the Mantle.

Haughm’s vocals are spot on here and are excellent dark vocals. His screams are simply incredible and consistent. In my earlier years I was heavily into the black metal stylings of bands like Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth as well as Agalloch. Nowadays I only keep up with one of those bands, that being Agalloch of course. The sound staging is very small and tight, meaning the instruments are very close together in the mix. This sometimes leads to the drums being highly irrelevant during the heavier segments when they are overshadowed by the guitar work. Of course with a song being this brutal and loud that’s a given, but it’s still a nuisance.

As a member of the 20+ minute long song family, it’s a worthy addition. As a contender to the throne of best Agalloch song, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. It simply doesn’t compete with “Black Lake Nidstang” and “In The Shadow of Our Pale Companion” in terms of quality despite being longer. Bigger isn’t always better and while it’s a song that will fit right into the Agalloch catalog, it’s just not their best work. 7-13-12

Available for $6 at http://agalloch.bandcamp.com/track/faustian-echoes